Monday, 16 April 2012

Patchwork City / City of Limits

Alberto (Al Azar) Martinez García is a student at the Escuela Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid in Spain, and a reporter for Plataforma Arquitectura. He visited Belfast in February 2012 - here he gives his impressions of the city as an urbanist and a visitor.

Patchwork city - image by Alberto Al Azar.

Belfast does not appear uniform. It is broken, interrupted, inducing different urban situations, full of spatial content - marked by the routes one can make around the city. Its history impacted on its citizens. Its citizens formed its architecture which in turn created heterogeneous urban landscapes - and which eventually became an urban mosaic, a patchwork city interrupted by its boundaries.

Belfast's quality as a city is not in its boundaries but in the architecture created through them and around them. The spontaneity and contrast provoked by these walls is the real architecture of the city. Beyond the barriers, distinct "game pieces" make up the set of urban conditions - these pieces generate random urban experiences and create citizen interaction.

BELFAST IS LIKE A METROPOLITAN HOUSEHOLD - circumstances constantly modify, post-produce, reinvent or destroy the city all at the same time, as if it were a home.

The river. Image by Alberto Al Azar.
[1] Geographical Limit - THE RIVER
The river is located slightly to the east of the historical centre, away from the most important part of the city, and without an important urban density, the river has its own personality within the city - an individual, almost autistic function for the citizens of Belfast.

The side of the river is designed as a linear park. The Lagan functions like a series of small urban landscapes starting at the Titanic Quarter and continuing almost to the mouth of the river at Belvoir Park Forest at the entry of the river into the city. On this route, the walker crosses several concentrated micro-landscapes, away from the interior life of the city.

On the other hand, the urban structure around the Lagan permits its isolation as well as granting the quality of meddling within the city.

The Belfast Entries. Image by Alberto Al Azar.
A clear example of the real or imaginary limits of the city of Belfast are the Entries which mark the historic district of the capital, such as Pottinger´s Entry. One leaves the morphology of the rationalist city, just for a few meters, to enter a very small street, where you can find pubs and several shops; the city disappears for several minutes in a limit-vacuum, and when you cross it, you come back to the reality of Belfast.

The Peace Lines. Image by Alberto Al Azar.

[3] Political Limit - THE PEACE LINES
I do not want to write about political or historical topics, but the walls that have separated the Catholic and Protestant areas for the last 40 years are a clear example of how the force of the architecture can modify the city and the adjacent constructions in a radical way.

The peace lines have created two different worlds inside the same city - two parts of the city that touch, but each with its own urban language.

A visual characteristic of Belfast (which you can appreciate when you have just arrived in the city by bus) is that it seems like it is half-built or half-destroyed. The plots distributed homogeneously throughout the city, with the party walls and the low density of the buildings introduce it as a city between glory and failure; we don't know whether it's growing or collapsing.

Belfast is a paradigm of how a city can grow beyond the planning that regulates and governs it - planning that often ends up being so narrow as to prevent the city from being developed and enriched in daily life, a lost opportunity to make a more direct and effective city.

What is the most interesting place in Belfast?
There is architecture beyond the City Hall, Queen’s University or The Albert Memorial Clock. In 2008, a speculative intervention brought Victoria Square - at more than 75.000 m2 the biggest shopping mall in Northern Ireland - to the historic district of Belfast. However the design of a grand dome which you can visit on the top floor lets you see a 360º view of the city. Today it is an attractive tourist point in the historic centre of Belfast - ARCHITECTURE.

When, the first Peace Lines were being built as a temporary walls to stop the violence between areas, nobody could imagine that 40 years later, these walls would be almost the most attractive sightseeing of the city and a great business for the local black taxis - ARCHITECTURE AGAIN.

If a city should have just one quality, just one adjective to describe it, it should be spontaneity. Belfast can be adapted to an external situation quickly, and external circumstances that don't belong get filtered easily. This way of developing and changing is the best aspect of Belfast in recent years.

Belfast remains a city still outside of "beyond-design". This kind of design has been empashized in other capitals of Europe in recent years, but not in Belfast.

Belfast is similar to what it always should be a city: partially regulated, spontaneous and with the possibility of generating surprise thanks to its architecture, its urban morphology and citizens.

It doesn't emphasise architecture emblematic of a contemporary sublime, but Belfast has the virtue that most of its buildings, both old and new, are far from mediocrity or lack of attitude in their design, as well as maintaining the city's own character.

- Alberto (Al Azar) Martinez García, February 2012

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